Is America’s oldest Chinese restaurant in a tiny suburb of Sacramento? Historians investigate | California

On a warm morning in March, a group of researchers entered an unassuming chop suey parlor in the Sacramento suburbs for a rare field trip.

The six history enthusiasts affiliated with the University of California, Davis, had gathered at the Chicago Cafe in Woodland, California, with one goal in mind: to determine the exact age of what may be the oldest Chinese restaurant in the country.

From cabinets underneath the diner counter, they excavated box after box of ephemera that formed a time capsule of 20th century Chinese immigrant experience. Among piles of letters, menus and tax receipts lay such relics as a vintage Chinese-English pocket dictionary, a 1976 Chinese edition California driver’s handbook and black and white polaroids of a newly crowned Miss Chinatown. To the experts’ trained eyes, seemingly any detail could reveal an artifact’s age, be it the digits of phone numbers, the typefaces on menus from decades past, or the clothing and makeup captured in photographs.

Three generations of the Fong family, hailing from an impoverished region in southern China, built the Chicago Cafe into a linchpin of Woodland civic life. Current owners Paul and Nancy Fong, who began working at the restaurant a half century ago, have been serving many of the same customers for decades. Some furnishings, like a pair of private booths and a wooden walk-in refrigerator, predate the couple’s employment, as do menu staples like the pork chow mein and chicken fried steak.

“Clearly, there’s a respect for history,” Jack Chin, a professor at the UC Davis school of law who’s leading the research into the Chicago Cafe, told his team as they perused the documents.

Gabriel ‘Jack’ Chin, UC Davis school of law professor; Elizabeth Chin; and Harley J Spiller, museum professional, review archival photos at Chicago Cafe in Woodland, California, on 13 March 2024. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian
The Chicago Cafe sign in Woodland, California, on 13 March. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian

The words “SINCE 1903” are inked on a white board behind the counter, a sight that stayed with Chin on his many visits to eat at the restaurant over the years. In a research paper published in January, he and his scholars from UC Davis verified that the diner had been in operation since at least 1910. After analyzing historical records in the Yolo county archives, including business directories, newspaper clippings and fire insurance maps, they concluded that the Chicago Cafe might have opened earlier than Pekin Noodle Parlors in Butte, Montana, which is widely recognized as the oldest existing Chinese eatery in the US.

In the early 20th century, the restaurant industry provided a legal and financial lifeline to Chinese people. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration to the US, later exempted merchants, a privileged class that included restaurant owners and managers. The so-called “chop suey” loophole allowed families like the Fongs to open up diners and bring over their kin. At the same time, restaurants remained a target of segregation. Chinese restaurateurs weren’t legally allowed to perform manual labor, including cooking and waiting tables. Later, as the popularity of chop suey parlors took off, officials across the country passed legislation banning white women from entering or working in chop suey parlors.

Woodland’s Chinatown was not immune to the anti-Chinese fervor that swept across California, according to newspaper clips Chin’s team uncovered. A 1910 Woodland Daily Democrat editorial proclaimed that every Chinese or Japanese farmhand “drove a white man out of the orchard”. Businesses boasted of employing “white help only” in ads.

Paul Fong, owner and operator of Chicago Cafe in Woodland, California, on 13 March 2024. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian
Paul and Nancy Fong cook in the kitchen of the Chicago Cafe, on 13 March. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian

“Chinatown was thought to be blighted, slum,” Chin said. “There was clearly a sense of separation even as the restaurant provided a method of integration.”

Yong Chen, author of Chop Suey, USA: the Story of Chinese Food in America, said Chinese restaurants like Chicago Cafe endured not because Americans were enamored with Chinese food. Rather, they filled a void of “convenient and affordable” offerings missing from the gastronomical landscape, becoming a precursor of sorts to fast food chains.

“The restaurant industry in the 20th century is not an industry people wanted to get into,” Chen said. “It’s so much hard work, the pay is so low, and the hours are so long. But the Chinese had no choice and no jobs in other places.”

Chen noted that the Chicago Cafe’s menus, which have changed little throughout its history, never served traditional Chinese dishes. Few restaurants in China serve Chicago Cafe staples like chop suey and egg foo young, let alone its broad selection of American classics like steak and eggs and hamburger with fries. The culinary choices cater to Americans’ perception and preference of Chinese food, Chen said, which isn’t atypical of popular 20th century Chinese diners whose “main purpose is economic”.

Elizabeth Chin reviews archival photos found at Chicago Cafe. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian

“If they can make a living serving Chinese food, they’ll do it,” he said. “If they can make a living serving french fries, they’ll do it.”

Hints of discrimination were evident in the records unearthed at Chicago Cafe. Harley Spiller, a museum educator and collector from New York City who flew into Woodland the night before, noticed that some Chicago Cafe menus advertised “American food and chop suey” but omitted mentions of “Chinese food”. Other iterations divided American and Chinese dishes into separate columns, Spiller said, which some scholars have attributed to racism. “You wouldn’t mix and match,” he said.

Left: Ben Ruilin, a PhD candidate, looks through an old letter found in Chicago Cafe’s archive. Right: sisters Cindy, Diana and Lydia Bueno sit in a booth at Chicago Cafe, on 13 March 2024. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian

Elizabeth Chin, an anthropologist and the sister of Jack Chin, said the typeface and phone numbers printed on said menus also offer valuable clues to the restaurant’s past. A three-digit number appeared on a few different Chicago Cafe menu sets, and a four-digit number appeared on a stack of order sheets. These types of phone numbers first appeared in the city directory at the turn of the 20th century. Chin, also an ethnographer, said that the Art Nouveau style heading of these menu sets suggested a possible origin date in the 1910s, when the arched, calligraphic fonts became popularized.

Ben Ruilin Fong, a comparative literature PhD candidate at UC Davis who is of no relation to the restaurant owners, said the Fongs seemed to be constantly negotiating with their identity as natives of Taishan, a city in China’s Guangdong province known as the “first home of overseas Chinese”. Like many others from the region, the Fongs fled to British-ruled Hong Kong, then the US, in search of new opportunities. “It’s interesting how they kept emphasizing they’re from Hong Kong rather than Guangzhou or Taishan,” Ben Ruilin Fong said, scanning a 1975 feature in a local paper. Taishanese immigrants, he said, often leverage their connection to Hong Kong, a city of higher status and class, to feel a sense of pride and heritage.

An old menu from Chicago Cafe. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian

Paul and Nancy have two adult children: Amy, who became a physical therapist, and Andy, a software engineer. Neither will be taking over the reins, but Fong, 75, said he’s not concerned that the business his grandfather built more than 120 years ago might end with him. “I want to retire and spend more time with my grandchildren,” he said.

Amy Fong described the recent media buzz, which drew hordes of new diners to the establishment, as a “blessing and a curse”. Lunch rush is busier than it’s been in decades, with retirees filling every booth and bar seat. The restaurant’s lone waitress, Dianna Olstad, rushed to deliver orders of chop suey, pork chow mein and ginger beef to the kitchen.

PhD candidate Ben Ruilin, law student Keith Kang, and law professor Gabriel ‘Jack’ Chin review historical materials found in the front counter of Chicago Cafe, on 13 March 2024. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian
Museum collector and educator Harley J Spiller searches for historical materials in a storage room office at Chicago Cafe, on 13 March 2024. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian

Like many Chinese restaurant workers, the Fongs worked punishing hours. Many decades ago, when Amy’s grandfather, John, was in charge, the Chicago Cafe operated from 5.30 am, to serve breakfast to farmers, until 3am, to serve patrons of nearby bars. For most of their adult lives, her parents never took a vacation, Amy Fong said. As they age, she’s increasingly worried about their health – her grandmother died of a heart attack in the kitchen when she was 63.

“They’re very stoic people,” Fong said. “They don’t talk much about their personal desires, hopes and dreams.”

For some regulars who have been frequenting the Chicago Cafe for generations, the restaurant’s historic value is incalculable. Cindy Bueno, 74, started coming to the Chicago Cafe in the late 1950s, when their mother began working there as a waitress. For nearly the entirety of their adolescence, Bueno and her six sisters spent their afternoons at the restaurant, finishing homework or helping their mother wash dishes, chop onions and other simple chores. In 1968, Bueno held her wedding reception there, and everybody ate chicken fried steak. Years later, her children attended high school with Amy and Andy Fong. “Everyone who comes here has a history of Chicago Cafe,” Bueno said. “This place is unforgettable.”

Harley J Spiller passes a used cooking wok that he found in a storage area above Chicago Cafe’s restrooms to Jack Chin, on 13 March 13. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian

Despite his team’s laborious research efforts, Chin said, it may ultimately be impossible to definitively verify that Chicago Cafe is the oldest in the nation. Official documentation simply doesn’t exist: Woodland city directories excluded Asian residents and businesses until 1939, which Chin said is likely an indication that officials didn’t consider Chinese people important enough to document.

The strongest piece of evidence supporting a 1903 origin date, he said, is a 1940 report from the Woodland Daily Democrat: “For over 37 years, the Chicago Restaurant has served Woodland well with the finest of foods at extremely low prices.” (No living Fong knows the story behind the restaurant’s name, though Jack Chin said that “Chicago” was a common name for Chinese restaurants because the city had a reputation for serving superb Chinese cuisine.)

Paul Fong prepares an order on 13 March 2024. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian

The date “1904” appeared twice in the trove of artifacts Chin’s team uncovered at the restaurant, on a business card and in a cryptic handwritten letter, but neither amounts to actual proof. But even without documentary evidence, Chin said he’s fairly certain that a 1903 origin date is accurate. Still, he isn’t giving up on his search. “We’re going to explore more long shot research directions,” he said.

Paul Fong, though, had surprisingly little to say about Chin’s quest to solidify his family’s legacy. His mind was more occupied by matters of culinary interest. As the lunch crowd thinned, he began clearing tables and chatting with regulars. When two women praised his chop suey, he gave them a brief overview of how the dish has evolved in the US. The traditional Cantonese version that his family has served for more than a century, he told them, incorporates bean sprouts. But most restaurants today, he said with a shake of the head, make the “New Hong Kong” variety that tastes like spaghetti. “Everyone from Sacramento, Dixon – they all come for our old Cantonese style chop suey,” he said.

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